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"At The Throttle"
by Mark Bassett, Executive Director

A weekly series of columns originally published in the Friday edition of the Ely Times 
Mark Bassett is the Executive Director of the White Pine Historical Railroad Foundation, operator of the Nevada Northern Railway Museum. He can be reached at the museum (775) 289-2085 ext. 7 or e-mail: director@nnry.com

 


Conundrum
30 September 2005

 

People come to the Nevada Northern Railway Museum to see steam locomotives operate. This is a truth that took me about six months to realize. Our visitors come to Ely with the expectation of seeing a steam locomotive in operation. Steam sells and it sells big time for the museum. This is the conundrum that the museum faces. Steam sells. But it takes a great deal of money to maintain and operate. Most people believe that our locomotives burn coal. That is only partial correct, they also go through bricks of twenty dollar bills.

In one decade from about 1947 to 1957, the railroad landscape in this country changed. The steam locomotive was replaced by the diesel locomotive. This cataclysmic change for the railroad industry caused tens of thousands of steam locomotives to be scrapped and cut up. Their replacement was the diesel locomotive.

This change had a profound effect on the railroad worker. As tens of thousand of the mighty steam locomotives were being cut up, tens of thousands of railroad workers were losing their jobs. Their skills were no longer needed. Men who spent a lifetime keeping the iron horse running lost their jobs because their purpose for being was no more. These were skilled trades: boilermakers, machinists, blacksmiths, millwrights, and plumbers. It took years to learn the trade and years more to master.

Steam locomotives 93 (left) and 40 (right) at the East Ely depot

These two operating steam locomotives entice people to visit the remote Nevada Northern Railway Museum. They are costly to operate and take special skills to maintain, yet they are our biggest attraction.

In the book Faces of Railroading, Portraits of America's greatest industry it states, "Employing 5,000 people, the sprawling Cheyenne Shops were typical of the steam shops operated by major railroads. Roundhouse workers…were some of the most highly skilled craftsmen in America. They had to be—steam locomotives were high maintenance machines with few interchangeable parts." These men could take a piece of iron and literally bend it to their needs. They captured the god of fire and put him to work. "The immense complex of shops [at Cheyenne] has nearly vanished. Today a handful of railroaders perform…tasks where once 5,000 toiled."

Most older Americans know this. They have memories of the mighty steam locomotive running through their town or riding behind it in passenger trains. But these older Americans are now in their 60s, 70s, and 80s. If you're in your 50s, you may have dim memories of seeing an occasional working steam locomotive. But if you're younger than 40, a steam locomotive is a museum piece at best or at worse, a rusting heap of steal at the local park that's an eyesore.

This is the conundrum that our museum is facing. We are using museum pieces to breathe new life into a technology and a way of life whose heyday ended a half century ago. It was economics that did in the steam locomotive. The diesel is cheaper to operate.

Yet people come to this remote corner of Nevada to see a steam locomotive in operation. And this is the conundrum, how do we keep an uneconomic piece of obsolete technology in operation? After all, this is the reason why, in this era of high gas prices, people come to the Nevada Northern Railway Museum—to see operating steam locomotives.

And the conundrum has two aspects to it. First is the economics, which I've touched on. Second is the human aspect. Remember those older Americans? These men who spent a lifetime learning and practicing their highly skilled trade? The men whose skills kept the steam locomotive running are now in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, if they're even still alive? So if we have the money to keep an uneconomic steam locomotive in operation, how do we do it? Where are individuals with the skills and the knowledge? And then how do we capture those skills to teach the next generation? Why bother even trying?

A steam locomotive is expense to operate; it needs specialized tools and knowledge. It is obsolete technology. Yet, how can we understand the genius that created it, if it doesn't operate?

Yes genius. Remember, before steam locomotives the fastest a person could travel was as fast a horse could gallop. There was no device on the planet capable of independent movement that could carry goods and people before the steam locomotive. Then there was the influence of the technological innovation. Railroads opened up the continents. Would there be a United States today that spans the continent without the transcontinental railroad? President Lincoln didn't think so; remember California was an independent republic before it became a state.

This smoky, dirty piece of obsolete technology changed civilization. (And you just thought they were cool pieces of machinery.) Yet, their story cannot be told if they are just stuffed and mounted inside some museum. Inside they're quiet, clean and pretty. Outside with a fire in their belly they're noisy, smoky, dirty, brawny; ready to strut their stuff and tell their story. This is a story that just can't be told with a cold steam locomotive.

So to tell the story we need money. We also need the people willing to maintain the knowledge and skills necessary to keep a steam engine functioning. And we need to teach the next generation how to do it. Not an easy task; as pointed out earlier; it took thousands to keep the steam locomotives running. Here in Ely it took hundreds.

Today the museum's mechanical department consists of five individuals that keep two steam locomotives, three diesel locomotives and twenty pieces of rolling stock rolling. At the same time, we have another steam locomotive to get back into service, another diesel locomotive, and more pieces of rolling stock to get rolling again.

A side benefit of this aggressive program of maintenance and repair, is the teaching of the skills needed to accomplish the goal of keeping the steamers going. Here at the museum we are creating the new faces of steam railroading. It is a challenge. Yet, if we don't do it a piece of our history—a piece of America—will fade away.

 

 

 

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